Detroit Rising: A Fresh Canvas For Street Art

REYES, Detroit Beautification Project
For decades Detroit has been synonymous with danger and decay. Once a bustling metropolis famous for its music and manufacturing, Michigan's most populous city is currently on the brink of bankruptcy, with one of the highest crime rates in the country.

But the D's not all doom and gloom. Detroit has a growing silver lining thanks to the hard work of ambitious, creative (mostly) young individuals who call it home. They've taken it upon themselves to turn the neglect and dilapidation back into a vibrant community.

The first installment in our multi-part series on Detroit focuses on the City's thriving though underground art scene.

Street art is flourishing amongst the ruins of the one-time auto capital of America. Over the last 20 years, Detroit has been in dramatic decline. It’s now synonymous with dilapidation, poverty, and segregation. Since 1950, the population has dropped from two million residents to 700,000, and as result, there’s a glut of abandoned buildings. But not everybody is walking out on the city. For a group of artists, the city’s dramatic decline is also a part of its appeal.

“I’ve been living in Detroit for two years now. It’s fucking amazing,” said renowned underground artist and Detroit resident, REVOK. “Coming here was the best idea I’ve ever had.” Not long ago, most people would have been surprised by those words, but REVOK’s not alone. Artists from an array of backgrounds are immigrating to the city for its affordable rent, lax street-art regulations, and the endless abandoned edifices that serve as fresh canvases.

“To paint murals in Detroit, you just go to a business owner and get their permission. That’s it,” said artist Rick “Malt” Butynski. “The fact that you don’t have to go through council meetings or bureaucratic procedures is great.” Malt was born in a suburb of Detroit and has lived in the city for the majority of his life. “For me, home’s home. I love it here, even before the [art] scene was what it is today. Back in the day, there were ten people that did graffiti; there was no scene at all. Today, everybody wants to come to Detroit and paint, which is great.” Malt finds inspiration in freedom and mobility—two reoccurring themes in his work, and words that were repeatedly mentioned by several other Detroit-based artists.

“In Detroit, anything is possible,” explained REVOK. “In New York or LA everything’s been done a million times over. I wanted to go somewhere where I could be creative on my own terms. Detroit sounded very free.” He had previously lived in Los Angeles, and left shorty after serving a 44-day stint in jail for violating probation on a misdemeanor vandalism charge. “I was tired of getting harassed and being fucked with all the time. Beyond that, I had been getting burned out by LA and everything that LA represented to me.”

Other artists share a similar sentiment. Matt Eaton, Director of the Red Bull House of Art in Detroit and co-founder of the Detroit Beautification Project (with REVOK) finds the city to be a good fit for his lifestyle. “Detroit is a place where you can be yourself. I'm happier than I've ever been. You can live very well here and save quite a bit of money if you're smart.”

There’s no doubt that the city is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. In some ways Detroit’s decay has become an objet d’art. It seems like at every corner there’s a vibrant mural adorning an abandoned building, or a sculpture made of recycled materials. “In Detroit, people are accepting street art and graffiti as a legitimate art form, whereas before it could have been viewed as an eyesore,” said Malt. “Now people appreciate it. I find inspiration in that, and in seeing the reaction on the public’s face.” As far as “non-permission” street art goes, REVOK appreciates it from a distance, even if it’s more accepted in Detroit than in other cities. “There’s a lot of youthful energy here. I wish I could participate in it, but I just sit on the sidelines and watch. It’s still exciting.”

As artists continue to flock to the once-somber Midwestern city and produce imaginative works, gallerists are taking note and artistic initiatives and institutions are popping up all over town. One such effort is the 555 Collective, a nonprofit gallery space and studio founded by a group of artists who develop empty buildings into studio spaces using foundation funds and donated labor. The group made headlines in 2010 when they removed a 7-by-8-foot, 1,500-pound cinderblock wall from the abandoned Packard Automotive plant and transported it to their headquarters. The now infamous concrete block had the stenciled image of a forlorn boy grasping a can of red paint next to the words “I remember when all this was trees.” The piece was done by British-born street art superstar and provocateur Banksy. The move by 555 Collective raised old questions about the significance, value, and ownership of graffiti. Once again, Detroit was making headlines.

Another impressive initiative is the Red Bull House of Art, a short-term artist residency / incubator program. Director Matt Eaton selects eight local, young, relatively unknown artists for a three-month cycle. The artists are given a generous budget and an impressive studio space where they create a small body of work that is ultimately exhibited in the downstairs gallery. Each show runs for three months while the next cycle of artists move in to the upper level of the institute. The artists keep about 90 percent of the profits from their sales.

Eaton and REVOK also spearheaded the Detroit Beautification Project, a public art initiative. The concept was borne out of the dream of having a group of artists gather in Detroit to paint murals around the city. “We just wanted to make some gray areas colorful, bring some happiness to streets where kids walk to school,” Eaton explained. “Nothing complicated or intense, just brightening up someone’s day. We had a blast, did some painting, drank some beers, ate burritos, drove around the city (not with beers), and asked people if we could paint their walls.”

An initiative with a similar goal is the Heidelberg Project. In 1986, founder Tyree Guyton set out to create an art space that, in his own words, “just makes you laugh, it makes you happy.” Since then, the Heidelberg Project has developed into an outdoor art space tucked into a neighborhood maze of run-down houses. In the installation, hundreds of abandoned objects are on display, taking on renewed purpose and life—much like the city itself. The objects range from beat-up shoes to abandoned buses.

In addition to public arts projects, the city is home to some of the finest museums in the country. The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), which has been around for over 125 years, is the perfect environment for contemporary artists to transition from street walls to gallery walls. The museum also exhibits works by world-renowned artists in every medium—from photo and video to painting and sculpture.

In Detroit, artists are beautifying a city that the rest of the country has seemingly given up on. The creative energy is everywhere and buzzes around the clock. “There are so many awesome artists and projects happening in Detroit,” Eaton said. “From maker spaces to pop-up gourmet restaurants, we have all kinds of crazy things going on. There’s a multitude of people who wear many hats. They do things like start homegrown newspapers while making art and knitting dog clothes, or some other bizarre hobby. It's incredible. I love it.” The ripples created by the art scene in Detroit are felt all over the country. Once a city that tourists had no intention of visiting, Detroit’s becoming a major travel destination for international art lovers.

But some fear that history will repeat itself, and what occurred in areas like Downtown LA; the Design District in Miami; and Williamsburg, Brooklyn—where artists built up a slow economy and were then driven out—is inevitable in Detroit. “When artists move into a somewhat gritty neighborhood and clean it up, money comes in and rent shoots up,” explained Caitlin Horn, a real estate broker in downtown Detroit. ”Then, the neighborhood becomes the most desired place in town,” she said. Some artists, like Malt, are afraid that could happen in Detroit. “If that were to happen here, it would be the only drawback with what’s going on right now, art-wise. That part is actually quite scary, just knowing that’s a possibility. Being here my whole life, where would I even go?” said Malt, with a concerned tone in his voice.

Only time will tell what’s in the cards for Detroit. For now, artists are breathing new light into the city, one abandoned building at a time. The optimism is palpable. As Eaton said, “Detroit is no longer Motown, or Techno City, or the Auto Capital of the World. So what are we? What do we have an abundance of? Creative and resourceful people. That's what we have here.”

More from FRANK:

The Seventh Letter's Detroit Beautification Project Preview #2

Uphill Both Ways: Roger Gastman Interview


STEEL, Detroit Beautification Project

Red Bull House of Art

Red Bull House of Art

Heidelberg Project

Heidelberg Project